Olson’s Tombstone Blues

An email in my inbox this rainy morning led me to the site with the following press release. Thought I’d pass it on:

For Immediate Release                                                   Dead Poets Society of America

Contact Walter Skold:  info@deadpoes.org

Charles Olson Tombstone in Danger of Splitting

September 28 – On the eve of the Charles Olson Centennial about to be celebrated in Gloucester, one New England poet and filmmaker has discovered that Olson’s unique tombstone is in danger of splitting in half.

“It is sad and ironic that while the literary world is getting ready to celebrate the Olson Centennial in less than two weeks, his tombstone is suffering a slow, cold, inevitable death,” says Walter Skold, of the Dead Poets Society of America.

The Maine-based poet has posted pictures online that show the severe damage and he is hoping that raised awareness will lead to someone fixing or replacing the tombstone.

(See pictures here. )

“I have been to over 210 poets’ graves East of the Mississippi, and Olson’s is one of the most interesting I’ve seen,” said Skold, who has led and filmed over 30 community readings at the graves of poets in 22 States.

The connoisseur of poets’ graves said he saw the crack on a visit to photograph Olson’s grave last summer, but that it was noticeably worse when he visited just two weeks ago.

Skold was in town preparing for the Columbus Day “Great Boston Poetry Marathon,” which will be a sunrise to sunset celebration of past Massachusetts poets that will start on the Gloucester waterfront.

That event is part of a larger nationwide effort of State Poets Laureate to establish a new literary holiday called Dead Poets Remembrance Day.

“We’re going to have a public reading to honor and remember Olson at his grave, which anyone can attend,” said Skold.

Olson died in 1970 and was buried in Gloucester’s Beechbrook Cemetery, where the 40-year old stone is cracking apart.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that it might not be that expensive for a conservationist to repair the stone.

Given his interest in poets’ graves, Skold is also a member of the Association of Gravestone Studies, so he contacted fellow members about the stone’s condition.

“Charles and Betty Olson’s gravestone is delaminating down the center of the stone,” said Kai Nalenz, owner of Gravestone Services, in Bedford, New Hampshire.

“If this widening gap is not addressed in the near future, the stone will split apart entirely,” said the conservationist, whose business specializes in historic gravestone conservation and repair.

“The stone would also benefit by a hand cleaning to remove surface lichen and other debris,” Nalenz told Skold.

One estimate for the cost to fix the stone was under $100.00.

Sounds good, eh? Actually, there may be more bad news.

“I got feedback from another person who is a professional tombstone carver and she said the problem was the extremely poor quality of the original stone,” said Skold “And that she would recommend getting a new stone, from England, which would cost around $4,500.00, including the sandblasting of the design.

It turns out that most modern slate in the US has fissures in it because it is blasted out of the ground, she told Skold.

She also told Skold that the original Olson design was sandblasted, not hand carved, and that several thousand dollars can separate those two procedures.

“Olson’s stone is so interesting because we have an example of a modernist poet choosing a Puritan-style “Death’s Head” motif for his tombstone,” said Skold.

“The only other poets’ gravestones I’ve seen like that in Massachusetts are from the famous Puritan poets Michael Wigglesworth and Edward Taylor, and the James Russell Lowell stone, in Mt. Auburn Cemetery,” he said.

The grave-hunting poet is not sure if Olson chose his own design, or if someone else did after his death, and is hoping the assembled Olson scholars will have some insight into that question.

Skold says he doesn’t know which choice would be best for the Olson stone, but that given the respect people have for Olson he wouldn’t be surprised if some people took it upon themselves to pay for the proper repair of the famous poets marker.

“I guess something like that has to go through Olson’s legal heirs,” he said. “But it would be a shame if the stone were left to break in half.”

“It’s part of the job for poets to muse about death and cemeteries,” said Skold, “But the twist here is that Gloucester’s harsh weather is conspiring to potentially bring about an early death for the tombstone of one of her beloved poets.”

Hello friends of Charles Olson,

The lovely tombstone of Charles Olson and his wife is splitting in half and in need of emergency repair.

The Dead Poets Society of America has issued a press release about the tombstone, and what it might cost to get it repaired.

If you think this is something important for people to know, please contact the editors of the Gloucester Times to ask them to write about it.

Also, for those of you who are going to still be in Gloucester for Columbus Day, the 11th, please join us for a sunrise reading of Vincent Ferrini at the Fisherman memorial and then a special reading at the gravesite of Olson.

See details here.


Walter Skold
The Dead Poet Guy

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